Dear Writers: Arousal and Erection Are Not The Same Thing

One of the myths that I hear quite often is the notion that erections and arousal are the same thing. (I was going to say “go hand in hand” but that seemed cheesy.) It’s true that for a lot of men, there’s a pretty clear link between getting turned on and having an erection, but not always. Stress & anxiety, health issues, aging, drugs (both prescription and otherwise), and being tired can all make the connections between the two less direct. Plus, it’s common to have an erection without being turned on at all, which is one reason why teens and young men often wear baggy pants.

In the article Placebo Is The Real ‘Female Viagra’ from, writer Matthew Herper discusses LibiGel, an experimental product that was being tested for hypoactive sexual desire disorder in postmenopausal women and describes it as “an attempt at creating ‘Viagra for women.'” He also says that:

for some men, problems in sexual arousal are basically hydraulic and can be fixed by blocking a chemical called phosphodiesterase-5, causing the penis to fill with blood, low levels of desire in women are a far more complicated matter.

This is exactly, 100% wrong.

Viagra doesn’t increase arousal. It facilitates engorgement of erectile tissue and there are some indications that Viagra increases clitoral engorgementvaginal lubrication, and may increase clitoral and uterine blood flow in healthy postmenopausal women without any erotic stimulus. That’s because these are linked to blood flow. Arousal, on the other hand, takes place in the brain as well as in the body. It’s complex for everyone across the gender spectrum and to claim that for some folks, it’s just a matter of hydraulics is simply silly.

One reason this sort of thing bothers me is that it reinforces the notion that men and women are totally different. Whether it’s phrases as Mars & Venus or using the language this writer did, this kind of gender essentialism is one of the sources of the problems, rather than helping us find solution.

Of course, there are some biological differences that are rooted in sex as well as plenty of social differences that are grounded in gender. But they aren’t absolutes- just as men on average are taller than women on average, plenty of women are taller than lots of men. Think of it as overlapping bell curves rather than an either/or.

Another reason that this bothers me is that it oversimplifies the incredible complexity of male sexual desire and arousal. The idea that men have an on/off switch and women have all of these buttons and dials sells male sexuality far short. I’ve talked with guys of all ages and backgrounds and I can tell you that there’s much more to it than simply flipping a switch.

Not only that, but this kind of discussion reinforces the idea that female sexuality is so complex that it’s impossible to understand it. After all, if science can’t explain it, how is your average Joe supposed to manage? The fact is that sexuality and desire are complicated AND they’re also not nearly as incomprehensible as the myths suggest. The tricky thing is that it’s different for each of us and we change over time, so there’s no one thing that will always work for any of us. But then, I could say the same thing about food without anyone suggesting that our culinary preferences are mysterious. They’re just complex.

There is one important thing that this writer got right. For all intents and purposes, the placebo was just as good as the drug for the women in this experiment. That makes sense to me- if you think you’re taking something that will increase arousal, that can help increase arousal. But then, 24% of men in clinical studies of Viagra also showed an increase in erectile response, too. Since anxiety (including anxiety about one’s penis) can cause erection difficulties, it makes sense that a placebo would have some effect. There isn’t much research on hypoactive sexual desire in men and I’d like to see how much effect a placebo has for male desire, too.

My hope is that someday, we’ll all understand that desire and erection aren’t identical, and that arousal is complicated for everyone. But I’m not holding my breath. 🙂

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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